Animal cruelty shouldn't be seen with 'us versus them' lens; all life has inherent, equal rights
People who would limit moral standards only to humans are guilty of the same prejudice that make racism and sexism objectionable.
Some years ago, a Bollywood film star named Salman Khan and his friends allegedly went hunting for a protected species of deer called Chinkara. It was reported that he shot the deer’s legs and then, as she dragged herself to escape, chased her and slowly slit her throat. He then left her there to die.
Some days later, he did it again and again and again. Salman was caught by a vigilante group of animal protectors and cases against him were registered. Witnesses disappeared and other witnesses turned hostile because they were allegedly offered a role in his films.
While the Indian laws state that he has to be convicted for five-seven years, in the first case, Salman was convicted for one year and came out triumphantly, throwing his shirt to his fans. A year later, he was convicted for the second case and given five years. Salman spent a total of six days in jail and then was granted bail by the Rajasthan High Court.
He gave a press conference, saying that he still held his head high and was not sorry about anything. I went on TV, expressing my great anger at this miscarriage of justice. The people opposing me were his producers and actors and they held the view that it was only an animal and animal rights were ridiculous.
In the meantime, Salman had allegedly killed five people by taking his car over a pavement, where poor people slept. He had also allegedly broken his girlfriend’s arm and had attempted to destroy a film set by ramming his car into it. He got away on both counts. But this brings into focus, the meaning of animal rights.
Rights are neither human nor animal, they are universal. Nor are they ours to give or take. The right to life is inherent with the grant of life itself.
The question of rights for animals is often misrepresented as an 'us versus them' issue. But rights are not material things, toys to be snatched from one to be given to another – they are for all. It is not like a cake that grows smaller by sharing but rather a cake that grows and expands by giving and including. It does not dispossess one for another, so why it need be gradual, one by one process. Instead, it must be a generous, glorious embrace that reaches out simultaneously to all sentient beings.
Animal rightists do not challenge human rights. What they do oppose are oppression and exploitation. And they oppose these evils down the line. It was an animal rights person that fought the first case against cruelty to children way back in 1874. It was another animal supporter that ended child labour and long working hours.
I, myself, head an organisation that rescues and rehabilitates children from the carpet trade. I have set up new training and employment schemes for the handicapped, the aged and the traditionally discriminated against.
It is not that people who work for animals care less about humans, it is precisely why they care more. They recognise that violence and cruelty to anyone degrade all, that it is wrong to treat animals badly for the same reasons that it is wrong to treat humans badly. So the choice is not animal vs human, but compassion vs apathy, morality vs self-interest.
The basic principle is one of equality – not necessarily treating humans and animals the same but giving them equal consideration.
'Rights' imply an equal consideration of interests. Just as equality for humans is not based on the actual equality of humans – with people being different in shape and size, character and ability. Similarly, extending rights to animals does not mean that they are equal, better or worse than us. It merely recognises that as sentient beings, they too are deserving of equal consideration.
Nor does this imply that animals should have all the same rights as humans because the difference between humans and non-humans requires differences in their rights – like voting or employment will naturally not apply to animals.
Recognising this basic fact, however, is no barrier to the case for extending the basic principle of equality to animals.
People who would limit moral standards only to humans are guilty of the same prejudice that make racism and sexism objectionable. It is simply arrogance to claim that humans are the only beings on earth with dignity and worth. We are only a subgroup of all the animal beings on this planet. What is it that elevates us above all members of other species?
Is it the power to reason? But even this does not apply uniformly. Infants, the senile, the mentally disabled cannot claim the awareness and intelligence levels of an elephant, pig or chimpanzee. To discriminate against beings solely on account of their species is a form of prejudice as immoral and indefensible as discrimination on the basis of race, caste or gender.
It is hypocritical to condemn one while practising the other. The question is not of rights but of equality of consideration. If a being suffers there can be no moral consideration for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. From the ethical perspective, humans and animals are equal whether they stand on two feet, four or none at all. According to the principle of equality, equal consideration must be extended to all beings – black or white, masculine or feminine, human or non-human.
Animals may lack our verbalising gifts but they have their own lives to live. They are nations caught in the same web of time and life on this earth. To imagine that their so-called lesser intelligence licenses ill-treatment of them are to leave the way open for any intellectual elite to tyrannise the rest of us.
If being more intelligent does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose? Biological differences do not justify moral differences.
The ethical principle on which human equality rests, that all living beings have an inherent and equal value, requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too. The European Union has recognised animals as sentient beings with the capacity to suffer and experience pleasure. But we do not need official confirmation of this fact. Anyone who has tickled a cat, loved a dog or seen a struggling, squealing goat or pig can have no doubt about the animal's capacity to feel exactly the same emotions as us.
We know that they nurse their young and teach them, they play and grieve, they have memories, and a sense of the future, their sense of home. We know that when they face death, they fear it.
Yet, while we accept the Darwinian assertion that humans and animals are on the same biological continuum, we resist allowing them on the same moral continuum. We accept the biological relationship without taking the logical step of acknowledging the moral relationship.
Chimpanzees, humankind's closest relative, have been infected and maimed and killed for over 50 years. They possess 98 percent of the same DNA, genetic material, as humans – but that two percent allows them to be mutilated in laboratories.
When it suits science's purposes, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy, but when it comes to extending equal consideration of interests, forget it.
Habits of thought lead us to brush aside descriptions of cruelty as sentimentality, to regard only problems concerning humans as those that merit attention. But unfortunately, the refrain 'humans come first' is more often an excuse for doing nothing about either human or animal suffering.
In reality, there is no incompatibility between human welfare and animal welfare. Vegetarianism, which will save millions of animals from pain and death will also feed more people, save water and energy, and reduce pollution.
Nobody seems to object to being kinder to animals as long as this kindness does not require giving up eating them, experimenting on them, using them, selling them and abandoning them at will. Justice as a principle requires that we owe animals courtesy and fairness not out of kindness but because respectful treatment is their right. Animals are neither property nor resources. They do not exist to serve us. Recognising their rights requires fundamental changes in how we treat them.
The issue is not of animal rights vs human rights but of human responsibility, not to abuse power over fellow creatures. Just as when human interests clash, when the interests of animals and humans clash, balance the amount that each is affected.
If the one is sacrificing a life and the other merely a diet preference, the ethical choice is clear. Animals do not ask for huge and complicated rights, they merely seek the most basic right to life, liberty and freedom from torture. It would take a mean spirit to deny them even this.
Like the battles against slavery, casteism and limited rights for women, every liberation struggle seeks an end to prejudice and discrimination and leads to an expansion of our moral horizons. The animal rights movement is unique in that it is being waged by people with absolutely no personal stake in it.
It is utterly altruistic, based on non-self-fulfilment and non-self-interest. Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi – all those concerned about the ethical treatment of animals – reflect what is best in the world. Animal rights do not just protect animals, they protect us against our worst instincts – greed, cruelty and selfishness – as well as from hunger, disease and natural disasters.
But can we make a fresh beginning, to right the wrongs of the past, to forge an ethical relationship with other species, to prove that morality can prevail over narrow self-interest?
To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org
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